Text Message Reference: Is It Effective? | Stacking the Tech

The biblioblogosphere is replete with posts announcing the launch of new SMS (text message) reference services at a steadily increasing number of academic libraries. The appeal of these services is more or less self-evident given the ubiquity of mobile devices on campus. Journal articles and conference sessions are filled with discussions of products and platforms, as well as strategies to market the new programs including YouTube videos, home page links, and Facebook applications. However, so far little has been gathered about how effective this type of service really is and whether or not it’s something that patrons find useful.

Message fits the medium

From my own experience providing instant message (IM) reference—an admittedly different beast—I found that the medium was ideal for quick ready reference, circulation, and directional questions. However, I also experienced some challenges with more in-depth research queries, as it was often difficult to judge the appropriate level of information to provide to the patron without a face-to-face reference interview. For example, an undergraduate who was just starting his or her research process would probably be seeking different (and fewer) sources than a doctoral student working on a dissertation, or a visiting scholar. While this might be determined very quickly at the reference desk, via IM, it could take three to four exchanges. Also, the lack of other visual cues—such as a student’s eyes glazing over when she's reached her limit of information intake, or an expression of frustration while demonstrating how to search a database—made IM reference a bit trickier. I wondered how these limitations might translate to text reference, which is further restricted by a message length of 160 characters.

Working with 160 characters

I’ve since had a chance to speak with several academic librarians who offer SMS text reference at their libraries and have been assured that this is indeed an effective and viable service. The 160-character limit does not seem to be an impediment; librarians simply send multiple messages or ask patrons to call or come into the library for further help with more complex questions. “Communication between librarian and patron isn’t hindered at all. We have varying degrees of comfort, among librarians but out patrons don’t seem to notice. In fact, our staff encourages someone who is texting to stop by and see us or give us a call to continue the conversation in-depth.” said Nikhat Ghouse, Digital Reference Librarian at the University of Kansas’ Anschutz Library. Similarly, Alexa Pearce, Reference Associate at NYU’s Bobst Library responded that "we were initially very worried about keeping conversations short and we have learned that users are very receptive to longer initial answers that span two or three texts.”

SMS as a gateway

Libraries are receiving a wide variety of questions via text messaging such as troubleshooting, directional, circulation, and reference queries, with some libraries receiving between 50-90 questions per month via patrons’ mobile devices. NYU’s Bobst Library not only sees the popularity of this service through their statistics, but also through the many “thank you’s” from satisfied patrons (via text). And it doesn’t seem to matter that the reference interview may take multiple text exchanges, according to these librarians—the content and quality of the answers is more important than the medium of delivery. Text reference may even serve as a way to bring people into the library not only for further consultation but to discover what else the library has to offer. “We reach a population who may not have considered the libraries and our services before, but with SMS they see that we are available to help in their preferred mode of communication when they are in need,” Ghouse said. Everyone I spoke with agreed that libraries can be quite effective using  SMS reference. Joe Murphy of Yale University Libraries told me, "I am as able, if not more so than in person, [to provide effective reference via SMS] because of the mobility it grants me, and definitely more able than through non-mobile virtual media. This should not be a surprise since text messaging is a dominant form of communication for me and my peers. Libraries will have to evolve towards incorporating more mobile technology in order to provide for maximum effectiveness for younger librarians. ” Keith Weimer, Reference and Instructional Technology Librarian at the University of Virginia’s Alderman Library added that “the use of mobile devices as a primary mode of computing is predicted to grow, and we’re glad to have established a means for our users to contact us from their immediate point of need.” Offering this type of mobile service makes sense for libraries at this stage—it seems the next step in the evolution of library services. As Pearce aptly states, “The success of our IM and email reference services has had the effect of turning us into users' "contacts." We show up in their chat windows and in their address books and being reachable via text is really the next logical extension in this progression.” So, while we may be answering many of the same questions via SMS we would be otherwise, we're also accomplishing something arguably even more important—making our service more effectively known to library users.
Ellyssa Kroski is an information consultant, reference librarian, writer, and conference speaker, as well as an adjunct faculty member at Long Island University, Pratt Institute, and San Jose State University. She blogs at iLibrarian.

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